Judge Reinforces Local District Control and Flexibility in Use of Student Test Scores in Teacher Evaluations

With much media fanfare, in July, 2015 the advocacy group Students Matter filed a lawsuit against 13 large school districts, alleging these districts are failing to comply with the provision of state law regarding the use of scores on state-mandated assessments in teacher evaluations.  AALRR represented five of the districts.  Yesterday Superior Court Judge Barry Goode ruled in favor of school districts in Doe v. Antioch Unified School District, et al.  The lawsuit sought to compel the districts (and, by implication, every other district in the state) to evaluate each of their teachers using state-mandated test data in the final, “summative” rating, and in a way that would have professional consequences for teachers.  The Court roundly rejected the contention that all school districts in the state are required to utilize this data in a particular manner, concluded that under current law local districts have discretion in determining how this data is incorporated into teacher evaluation and assessment, and confirmed that all 13 districts are, in fact, complying with the law.

Upon filing of this lawsuit, several districts removed certain language from their collective bargaining agreements suggesting that teacher evaluations would not be based on students’ state standardized scores, and also presented evidence that the use by all 13 of the California Standards for the teaching Profession (CSTP) did involve student testing data in evaluation and assessment of performance.  The amendments and evidence did not quell petitioners’ contention that student performance on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (“CAASPP”) had to part of the “summative” evaluation.

At issue was the interpretation of Education Code section 44662(b)(1), as modified in 1999, stating school districts must “evaluate and assess certificated employee performance as it reasonably relates to: (1) The progress of pupils toward the standards established pursuant to subdivision (a) and, if applicable, the state adopted academic content standards as measured by state adopted criterion referenced assessments ….” (Emphasis added.)  The court concluded the legislative history of the amendment included nothing to support petitioners’ argument that quality of education would be improved if a school district were required to evaluate a teacher “with consequences” based on student state testing performance.  In addition, petitioners “pointed to nothing” in the legislation adopting the CAASPP that directed school districts to use CAASPP results for individual teacher evaluations.  Judge Goode also found it relevant that if the 1999 amendments made the “major change in teacher evaluations” urged by the petitioners, it is entirely likely that one or more teachers unions would have opposed that legislation – but none did.

The respondent school districts submitted evidence bearing on “the practical application of the statute to the real world of elementary and secondary education.”  Gleaning from the declarations provided by school administrators, Judge Goode recognized, “There seems little disagreement that … the key criterion is not a student’s score on a test, but how the teacher has helped to change that student’s score from prior years.”  Ultimately, Judge Goode concluded the law does not compel districts to perform teacher evaluations in the manner petitioners asserted, because the phrase “reasonably relates” in the statute, along with other factors, gives school districts discretion to determine what is reasonable in light of the complex factors bearing on whether and how student test scores reasonably relate to a teacher’s performance.  He also noted that each district used the CSTP, and he gave considerable weight to the undisputed facts that the CSTP: 1) were developed with the involvement of the Commission on Teacher Credentialing; 2) were explicitly endorsed by the Legislature shortly after the statutory amendments described above (through the enactment of Education Code section 44661.5); and 3) are endorsed and recommended evaluation criteria by the Superintendent of Public Instruction.  Judge Goode concluded, based on the evidence, that “[n]o district appears to ignore the standardized test results of any particular teacher’s pupils.”

The decision serves as a reminder that current law requires the incorporation of CAASPP data in teacher evaluations, but is a victory for local discretion and decision-making by reinforcing that how the data is used is a local decision and not a state mandate.

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